Top Chef Season 17: Episode 9 Recap
By Jason Lee
May 18, 2020
In the alternate universe of Top Chef, summer camp is on. Yes, while millions of kids face an uncertain next couple of months, our chefs are headed to Pali Mountain Resort for adult summer camp. For her part, Lee Anne is not looking forward to it. As you may remember, she fought her way from Last Chance Kitchen to get back into the competition, endured a camping challenge in the snow, got altitude sickness, and had to withdraw from the competition.
Here’s hoping things go better this time around.
Today’s Quickfire is classic Top Chef. In a challenge sponsored by Bush’s Beans, the chefs will have 30 minutes to make a dish using those products. The winner will get a cool $10k. Padma and Top Chef: Kentucky winner Kelsey will judge the finished products.
It’s rough going for most. Stephanie is totally brain dead and has trouble coming up with something to serve. Melissa struggles with getting her bean filling to stay in her fried dough. And Karen finds, to her dismay, that the kitchen lacks chicken stock to use for a soup.
In the end, Stephanie, Melissa, and Bryan Voltaggio end up in the bottom. Stephanie’s black bean burger just didn’t hold together and it was hard to eat. Melissa’s white bean, bacon, and poblano fried dough with charred mango salsa was dry, and there wasn’t enough beans in the filling. Finally, Bryan’s pinto bean-marinated skirt steak with white bean puree was more about the steak and less about the beans.
On top are Karen, Lee Anne, and Gregory. Karen somehow pulled together a Tuscan white bean soup that was super flavorful and perfect for eating around a campfire. Lee Anne’s Cuban black bean empanada with pea slaw was packed with beans and flavor. As for Gregory, our perpetual stand-out, he somehow managed to fry his hickory-smoked beans to a crisp, making for a great textural contrast in his bean salad with grilled vegetables and white bean vinaigrette.
Though Gregory’s genius with frying his beans seems like it won him the day, Lee Anne actually takes home the $10k in her first Quickfire win since Season One! She’s thrilled and already plotting ways to use the money to bring beans into some dish for her impending wedding.
With the requisite corporate-sponsor challenge out of the way, Padma gets down to business. The chefs will be staying overnight at the mountain resort to cook a Sunday brunch buffet for 200 mothers who are staying there for a weekend getaway. The diners will include Tom, Padma, Gail, and Top Chef: New Orleans winner Brooke Williamson.
Because buffet means bounty, each chef will have to make two dishes for the meal. This will be challenging for two reasons. First, the chefs will only be able to use what’s already into the resort’s pantry. There will be no shopping at Whole Foods. Second, the chefs won’t know what ingredients are available until they show up at the kitchen tomorrow at 5 am, with service scheduled to begin at 9 am.
This means there’s nothing to be done—no prep, no planning, no shopping—until tomorrow morning, which leaves the chefs a full day to enjoy what Pali Mountain Resort has to offer. Cue scenes of the chefs climbing trees, ziplining, and eating dinner over a pitfire.
The chefs dutifully wake up at 4 am for the challenge and head to the pantry to see what they have to work with. It’s . . . not much. Not only is there little diversity in terms of the ingredients available, the quantity of food is also lacking.
With only four hours before 400 servings must be dished out, the chefs make do with what they have. Gregory decides that fruit salad will be one of his dishes. Melissa scrounges for ingredients for some type of green salad, since meat and protein abounds with the other chefs. Karen thinks about doing eggs, but Brian Malarkey is doing shakshuka and Gregory is pairing eggs with his marinated mushrooms, so she chooses to make corn cakes instead.
Wait, actually, Brian can’t find enough tomatoes to make shakshuka, so he won’t be making eggs. And Gregory runs out of time to incorporate eggs, so he’s using spinach as a bed for his mushrooms instead. Which means that out of 14 dishes, the diners will not be served eggs.
As service approaches, drama unfolds in two areas of the kitchen. Brian Malarkey heads over to the serving area and finds that no one has left him any space to serve his food. He proceeds to get extremely pissy, sarcastically thanking the other chefs for how they divided up the area and complaining about his situation. He then unplugs an entire hotbox and drags it over to a station he’s put together for himself, making as big a deal about it as he possibly can.
Meanwhile, someone (it sounds like it was Bryan Voltaggio) switched the oven Lee Anne had been using to “full steam” instead of bake, thus absolutely ruining her clafoutis. Instead of coming out light and airy, they’re dense and leaden. She prays that her second dish, a take on donuts and coffee, will be enough to save her.
The moms stream into the cafeteria and pack the lines. The judges sit and wait for the initial rush to subside. As Gail jokes, it’s just “Tom and the Moms.”
Melissa is first with a romaine salad, grapefruit, and maple buttermilk vinaigrette. She also has a ham congee with fried shallots. Though the congee is good, there might be a disproportionate amount of ham in it. As for the salad, to call it underwhelming would be an understatement. Brooke calls it “vinegar on lettuce.”
Stephanie is next with a “breakfast salad” of sweet potato, egg, avocado, and cranberries. Though it looks like a bunch of random ingredients cobbled together, it’s actually tasty. Stephanie also offers buttermilk biscuits with banana bacon jam, which Kelsey deems “perfect.”
Gregory serves up some humble fruit salad next to marinated mushrooms with roasted tomatoes over wilted spinach. Proving that he can do no wrong, both dishes are big hits. The spinach just might be superior to the eggs he had intended to use, and his use of jalapeño in the fruit salad is incredibly clever.
Lee Anne brings some sweetness to the party with her mixed berry clafoutis, which Padma compliments as “beautiful,” and cinnamon, nutmeg donut with a coffee creme anglais. Because the bottom is dense and steamed, Lee Anne tries to serve only the top-most portion of her clafoutis. But the judges notice anyways, guessing correctly that it was steamed given the “mush on mush” texture and fact that there’s too much fruit. As for her donuts, they’re dense and taste stale.
As was the case two weeks ago with Eric, it’s abundantly clear that Lee Anne is going home.
That is, unless Malarkey has something to say about it. He has a chorizo soup with shrimp and goat cheese that lacks flavor and is generally “one note.” There’s no spice, no acid, and the shrimp is overcooked. He redeems himself partly, though, with his fennel-crusted steak with potatoes, which tastes good but lacks the horseradish flavor that Malarkey promised.
Karen goes southern with corn cakes and white corn grits with braised pork. The grits are good, though she fields some criticism for the fresh parsley on top, which threatens to overwhelm the flavor of the dish. Her corn cakes, though, are awesome—sweet, crispy, and perfect for brunch.
Proving that he’ll keep doing fine dining, whatever the scenario, or die trying, Bryan Voltaggio serves coriander-roasted carrots with salsa verde, which he plates using tweezers—a first in a breakfast buffet. For his second dish, he has a potato, shallot cake with gruyere fondue and braised bacon gravy. They’re both hits. Bryan somehow took bulk ingredients in a freezer and made food that felt homey, comforting, and delicious.
Though the winner (Bryan) and loser (Lee Anne) are both clear, the judges go through the motions anyways. Along with Bryan, Karen and Gregory are in the top. Karen’s corn cakes draw significant praise from the judges and also from the diners. Gregory got great umami flavors out of his marinated mushrooms and roasted tomatoes. But Bryan takes home the win for somehow making an elevated restaurant-quality dish out of ingredients available in a resort walk-in fridge. Making elevated restaurant good has gotten him into trouble before, but today, it’s a winning strategy.
As for the bottom, it’s Lee Anne, Melissa, and Malarkey. Regarding Lee Anne’s clafoutis, Tom can’t understand why she didn’t check to make sure the oven was on “bake” instead of “steam.” To him, it was a big mental mistake. Lee Anne saw this criticism coming and thus sheepishly asks, “did you like the donuts?” Unfortunately, the judges did not, with Padma saying the sugar on the donuts were wet with oil. Lee Anne’s entire posture slumps. She knows she’s going home today.
Yes, Melissa’s salad was a throwaway—perhaps the single worst dish of the day—but her congee was good. Yes, Malarkey’s soup was bland due to the excess water that came out of the frozen shrimp he used, but he did well with the cookery on his steak.
With nothing to redeem her, Lee Anne is asked to pack her knives. She’s mostly bummed to have gone home on a brunch challenge, as she has a great brunch service back at her restaurant in Hawaii. It’s something she’d normally crush. But not today. Whether due to missing home, the back-to-back stresses of the challenges, the early morning, or forces outside of her control (I’m looking at you, Voltaggio), she didn’t deliver today. She can only hope she does as well in Last Chance Kitchen as she did last time around.